Alexia Foods, Inc., makers of all-natural gourmet frozen foods, recently received a warning letter from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use of the term "all natural." Alexia brand Roasted Red Potatoes & Baby Portabella Mushrooms products contain disodium dihydrogen pyrophosphate, a synthetic chemical preservative. Under its loose definition of natural, the FDA says the use of "all natural" on Alexia's package is misleading.
FDA considers use of the term "natural" on a food label to be truthful and non-misleading when "nothing artificial or synthetic…has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food." The synthetic compound in question, disodium dihydrogen pyrophosphate, prevents potatoes from turning black.
This misstep is perhaps not surprising for Alexia, given its parent company's track record. In 2008, ConAgra acquired Alexia for an undisclosed amount. This year, consumers sued ConAgra for using the term "100% natural" on its Wesson brand cooking oils made from genetically modified organisms.
Kashi, a subsidiary of the Kellogg Company, also was sued by consumers this year for using "natural" to market products that contain unnaturally processed and synthetic ingredients. As large packaged food giants acquire smaller natural and organic companies and implement unnatural processes into formerly natural products, consumer backlash will continue. And although experts agree that a better FDA definition of "natural" is far off, could consumer lawsuits be shifting FDA toward more regulation?
Will FDA increase regulation on its loose definition of 'natural?'
Upon examination of all recent FDA enforcement actions via warning letters, Alexia Foods' letter is sandwiched among other companies' much more egregious acts, such as adulterated seafood, insanitary conditions and unapproved drugs. With matters of basic human health and safety at hand, it's perhaps no wonder why warning letters about "natural" are few and far between.
Cara Welch, Ph.D., vice president of scientific & regulatory affairs for the Natural Products Association (NPA), echoes that sentiment. "It's been a while since I've seen FDA take a stance on 'natural' regarding food," she said.
Even if FDA is on the brink of ramping up regulation, it's clear that industry and consumers are crying out for a more workable 'natural' definition. "FDA's getting some feedback that consumers want that word to have meaning, but it's kind of a can of worms," said Mary Mulry, Ph.D., president of FoodWise, Inc. a natural, organic and specialty foods consultancy.
As long as natural remains loosely defined, the catch-22 that has stumped industry will remain, said Welch. For example, a food can claim "made with organic ingredients," yet, because it has a natural colorant, such as beet juice, the food can no longer claim it's "natural." The same is true for other preservatives and synthetic ingredients. Unlike FDA, the NPA states that if a food is organic it is by definition natural. NPA is currently working on natural certification standards for food.
These loopholes may allow FDA to regulate for now, but Mulry predicts that if the term isn't more clearly defined, its use will disappear. "The basis of their warning letter [to Alexia] is to not mislead the consumer," she said. "If [FDA] had an internal definition of natural that included some of these ingredients and published it, it wouldn't be misleading to the consumer. Right now it's misleading because we don't have a definition."